Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

The New International, Spring 1957

Mel Becker

Books in Review

From Russian Biology to Stalinism


From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 2, Spring 1957, pp. 122–125.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought
Edited by E.J. Simons
Harvard University Press, 1955.

This volume is a collection of essays, mainly by leading academicians of the Russian Institutes of Columbia and Harvard Universities. The articles presume to cover in their total 554 pages all of Russian history and almost every artifact that that society could produce. Articles on Chernov and agrarian socialism before 1918 as on Pobedonostsev and his authoritarian theory of the state, Khomiakshov’s idea of the Christian commune followed by Vyshinsky’s ideas on collectivism, with discussions on biology, Russian literary criticism from Belinski to Lunacharsky, dialectics, reason, faith, Dostoyevsky and Danilevsky, the Third International (between 1935–9) and many other topics.

The volume falls into two major areas of study: continuity and change in socio-political life in Russia, and in aesthetics.

In the first area, only Marcuse’s article on Dialectics and Logic Since the War is of merit and has interesting points to make, with careful documentation, on the hypostatization of dialectics by the Stalinists, their making of the Marxist method a rigid, dogmatic, dead code with which everything can be justified. Notwithstanding Marcuse’s own interpolations as to the causes and results of this charge (“the intensified effort to improve living conditions in the Soviet Union and to stabilize the international situation”), the article is valuable and worth reading.

One other article in this section also deserves mention, mainly for those with a natural-science bent, although those who appreciate a well-written, witty, and informative piece will also be interested in reading it. T. Dobzhansky, in The Crisis of Soviet Biology, takes on Lysenko and his peculiar role in Stalinist Russia. The way in which Dobzhansky relates the story of this obvious charlatan and the story itself is quite witty (only when we think of the killing of those scientists who easily recognized what madness Lysenko was proposing does the matter become serious and tragic). All that Lysenko had to propose was a return to views of the Russian pioneer in biology, Timiriazev, and to Michurin. Along with his famous ideas on wheat and acquired characteristics in general, Lysenko, having denounced Darwin and as a second thought modern gene theory, announced that all “cells arise from mysterious ‘granules’ contained in the protoplasm” and that due to their mysterious behavior wheat could be transformed into rye, pine into fir, and so on (literally!). As Dobzhansky says, “Is this at last an original idea of Lysenko, however fantastic it may sound? Or is this only a disguised version of spontaneous generation ... The Michurinists have evidently ‘progressed’ back to the pre- scientific stage.” In fact some of Lysenko’s gyrations on this subject are just fantastic: in 1953 he announced to the world a new theory on the cuckoo bird. Dobzhansky reports, “It would seem that the cuckoo produces no eggs of its own, and cuckoo birds arise through the same process which allegedly transforms wheat into rye and pine into fir!” The Stalinists certainly produce good material for satire – we can say that much for them.

THE ARTICLES ON LITERATURE and literary criticism are mainly the ones worth reading.

An interesting examination is made by R.W. Mathewson, Jr. on The Hero and Society: The Literary Definitions (1855–1865, 1934–39). The “hero” of the early 19th century Russian writers was the “superfluous man” – the idle, frustrated, self-centered, self-pitying, alienated, dissenting individual. In reaction to this, the mid-century writers looked to the “new man” – the man of iron who would transform the world. As Dobroliubov said of Turgenev’s hero, the Bulgarian revolutionary, Insarov, he “is concentrated and resolute, undeviatingly loyal to the sense of natural truth, imbued with faith in new ideals and is self-sacrificing in the sense that [he] prefers death to life under a system which ... [he] detests.” Chernyshevskii broadened the picture in his novel What’s to Be Done? where Rakhmetov represents the “new man”. Rakhmetov is the devoted professional revolutionary, with all the romantic connotations that the words carry. As Mathewson points out, “his regime of gymnastics, hard physical labor, raw beefsteak diet, voracious though selective reading, and sexual continence reaches heights of absurdity when he rises one morning soaked in blood from head to foot after a night spent on a bed of nails.” Impersonal and remote, free from doubt and internal struggle, he is in truth the embodiment of Nietzsche’s ideal, or the Freudian father symbol for revolutionary zealots.

Nearly 80 years later, the Stalinists resurrected, or so they said, the idea of the “new man.” Davidov, the hero of Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned, is the best example of this type of “new man.” The similarities are obvious. He also is the hard mechanical man, devoid of emotional life, ready to carry out the Stalinist collectivization program even if the entire town must be “dekulakized.” He, too, is the “moral monolith” combining both theory and practice in one human being. He stands above the rest of humanity and by following the orders of the party without question leads those blinder than himself to salvation.

But there is one essential difference in the two types of “new man” which Mathewson does not perceive. Granted that the hero of Turgenev, Chernyshevskii, etc., was a committed, but emotionally undeveloped, individual, in a sense above other mortals and yet also below them; he was not at all the Stalinist prototype of the authoritarian man. He was willing to sacrifice much for his revolutionary ideal, but not to the extent of liquidating all basic human ideals. He would have been horrified at the inhuman steps the Stalinists used in dealing with their opponents and destroying the remnants of the workers’ state. He was hard, yes; but he also corresponded to the humanitarianism and intellectual honesty as represented by his creators, Turgenev and Chernyshevskii. Thus with all the similarities between him and the Stalinist “new man,” they are basically diametrically opposed personalities.

The other article of note is by V. Erlich, entitled Social and Aesthetic Criteria in Soviet Russian Criticism. The ferment on the Russian cultural scene after the October Revolution was tremendous. Literary criticism was not spared. Because of the role that both literature and criticism play in directly molding the consciousness of large segments of a modern society, what one writes and the way in which it is written is very important to the rulers of the society, and this was especially true in the case of the early Russian workers’ state with its extremely conscious ruling class. Naturally then the debate between the spokesmen for varying theories of literary criticism was heated.

The camps on the literary front were many but we will deal with only three, as Erlich mainly does. The Formalists comprised the major non-Marxist approach to literature, calling almost for the complete separation of art from social life. One could almost call them the forerunners of New Criticism with their emphasis on the internal structure of literature as the decisive aspect of its quality.

The attack on the Formalists was mainly by the Marxists, but in two sharply divergent forms. On the one hand Trotsky, Bukharin, Lunacharsky and Voronskii, in varying degrees, attacked the Formalists for their cult of the Word; but at the same time agreed that the laws of aesthetics do not have a one-to-one correspondence with social life.

Therefore, they said, no Marxist, simply because he is a Marxist, has a magical formula for judging the merit of some work of art. Also, because of this relative independence of art from society, no Marxist party has the right to determine the subject-matter, the style, or the criteria for judging art. Independence of artistic expression and freedom of development were the best guarantees for a great art to flourish. At the same time one could denounce the Formalists for being “the last refuge of the unreconstructed intelligentsia looking furtively toward bourgeois Europe” as Lunacharsky did, but this was not in the sense of laying down a party line to be followed by all artists; it was only a legitimate judgment on the part of one literary critic.

On the other hand, were the champions of what later, with the consolidation of Stalinist rule, became the gospel of “Socialist Realism.” Here, everything was quite simple. Art is a weapon of the class struggle; it is either on the side of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie; therefore the Party has the right and the duty to direct it into “proper” channels. Later the argument was extended so that only vulgar realism was allowed; only those dull, arid “production novels” fell under the favor of the Party and everything else was written under the fear of the GPU’s pistol or Siberia. What started out as a serious intellectual theory of literary criticism had degenerated by the middle ’30s into another ideological weapon in the hands of the Stalinist state.

Taking Continuity and Change as a whole, it is clear that certain articles are worth reading. One will not find any point of view represented, except for a vulgar anti-Stalinism; for as usual with academicians they like to present what they call the “facts,” thinking this is the height of a scientific approach. It will be difficult, dry reading on the whole with much nonsense to boot. But there are those few little articles which are interesting and have useful information.

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 13 January 2020